At the V-Nai Mini Mall in Southeast Fresno, a bland entrance belies the vibrancy inside. The rows of little shops sell traditional Hmong clothing, brightly colored embroidered bags, costume jewelry and hair ornaments. It’s made up mostly of female vendors, a few of them doing detailed work at sewing machines. The rhythmic sound of stitching sometimes accompanies conversations in Hmong. After all, V-Nai is not just a place to buy and sell things, it’s also a place to share, even when the news is at its worst.
Cha Vang waits while a vendor shows his companion a set of dangly silver earrings and a necklace. Vang lives in Sacramento now but came back to Fresno this week to mourn with family members of his close friend, the popular singer Xy Lee, who was killed in the mass shooting Sunday.
"He’s well known throughout the United States,” Vang said. “Wherever the Hmong community lives, they all love his songs.”
Vang said he met the 23-year-old singer a couple of years ago and they became good friends. He’d even seen him last Sunday before the shooting occurred. But later that afternoon, Vang was back on Highway 99 heading north. When he got to Sacramento, he said, he had a bad feeling. Something just hit him.
“I was talking to a friend. We always share our spiritual side together. And I told her, ‘Hey do you kind of feel like something’s wrong? Something’s kind of awkward?’” he said.
Then he looked at Facebook and his world blew up. Vang says he and Lee were in touch almost every day.
“He always had that big, bright smile everytime you see him,” he said.
Coming to the mini mall gives Vang a sense of belonging, just like Lee’s music. Lee wrote songs about love, songs for broken hearts and enduring loss: songs that tell stories.
“If you’re brokenhearted, you learn to walk your path again,” said Yang, as he described the sentiment of one of the songs. “And eventually, your chosen one will come along.”
One of the vendor’s here, Gaonou Vue, helps Vang’s friend with the clasp of a necklace she’s trying on. Vue also sells herbal supplements and teas.
She said people here can’t stop talking about the mass shootings. The Hmong community is like a big family, she said.
“Everybody so sad. Everybody try to help. Everybody ask the question ‘Why people doing thing like that?’ We didn’t do anything wrong so we don’t know why,” she said.
Why four men were shot dead and six others wounded in a backyard party. Standing outside her stall, Vue sees the sister of one of the men who was killed walk by. The shopkeeper across the way hugs her, and the sister starts to cry. Vue asks if she wants to share a story about her brother. She’s too sad, she said, to talk.
Vue said she also knows one of the victims. He worked at the grocery store, Thaj Yeeb, just next to V-Nai.
“He’s a very nice guy. I always see him carry the stuff from a store to another store. He’s a very nice guy,” she said.
At Thaj Yeeb, Assistant Manager Zua Xiong says 40-year-old Kalaxang Thao was a quiet sort. He always got his work done and was generous about helping out. His violent death left a growing family behind.
“It’s just sad for this to happen,” he said. “He has a lovely wife, two little daughters, another one on the way too.”
Two kids and a wife who is 7 months pregnant. Xiong had seen Thao on Sunday. It was just another day at work, he said. Until later, when he saw the news and looked at social media.
“Wow, like it’s crazy because you don’t know when it’s the last time you’ll see someone. It still doesn’t feel real at the moment.” he said. “He was a very important member of our group.”
At the mini-mall, Cha Vang said community members who are in despair need to reach out to each other. Just ask, he said.
“And you have a whole village to help you,” he said.
As he got ready to leave V-Nai, Vang said his favorite song is a recent one Lee sang with his girlfriend. “It’s the most astounding song of all,” he said. “That one, everybody loves it.”
It’s a song he’ll hold on to as he goes to meet Lee’s family, hoping to give and maybe even get some solace.